PR campaign is on to relieve refugees of travel loan repayment

One of the things that jumped out at me in the testimony at the May 1 US State Department “scoping meeting”  nearly two weeks ago was that refugee advocates seemed to have themes to their testimony—things that many are pushing to change.  One of those things was a plea to eliminate some responsibility for travel bills the refugees ring up.

Back in  2007 I was surprised to learn that the refugees sign a promissory note to begin repaying their travel “loan” shortly after arrival.  A State Department employee told us that it was good for the refugees to begin to have responsibility for loans.  Of course as an advocate for the taxpayers of America I want to see them repay their travel expenses to get to the US, but how the h*** can they do that if they don’t have jobs?

Here is a story from Idaho last week which gives more detail then I have ever seen about the “loan” program that comes through the International Organization for Migration (IOM).   Of course what the World Relief (one of the nine federal contractors) employee doesn’t tell you here is that his non-profit will get a cut of any money they can wring out of the refugees—it doesn’t all go back to the US Treasury!

From NPR Idaho (What is the program you likely haven’t heard of? Emphasis mine):

It’s called the International Organization for Migration U.S. Refugee Travel Loan Program.

What is it?  In short, it covers the cost of transportation for nearly all refugees resettled in the United States.  (For this year, that could be as many as 76,000 people.)

Basically, it’s a revolving loan fund.  The loans are interest-free, and the money comes from the U.S. Department of State.  In FY2011, the State Department contributed $78.35 million for the transportation of refugees.  That money  went to the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental group headquartered in Geneva.

Before refugees come to the U.S., whether they are coming from Iraq, Tanzania, Uzbekistan, they sign a promissory note.  It spells out the refugee or refugee family’s cost of  travel, and requires that monthly payments begin within six months of arrival in the U.S.  The loan amounts vary according to the number of people traveling, and where they’re traveling from.  One loan may be $1,413, another $10,306.

Payment amounts vary accordingly.  Promissory notes dictate that loans be repaid within 42 months of arrival.  That means monthly payments are determined by dividing the total loan amount by 36.  The promissory notes say that if a loan goes unpaid for four or more months or if a refugee doesn’t pay the loan fully within 46 months, the IOM can accelerate payment, and report the refugee to a collection agency.

Before the recession hit, Boise’s World Relief office resettled more than 300 refugees annually. In part due to the economic downturn, that number has been cut back. Last year the agency received a total of 166 refugees.

“What of it?” you might ask.  As StateImpact has reported elsewhere, the recession dealt an especially hard blow to Idaho’s refugee population.

Larry Jones is the Boise Field Office Director for a refugee resettlement agency called World Relief.  In a recent interview, he recollected what it was like to try to help refugees establish lives here in Idaho as the recession hit.  “Fewer and fewer people were able to get jobs,” he remembered.

Jones said the lack of jobs meant refugees needed more support.  “We started to see the needs of initial resettlement start to stretch from five or six months to maybe two years before someone got their first job,” he said.  “That’s a long time to be patching together support structures to keep people in their homes.”

Sounds like it is time for a moratorium on the whole program!

More here on refugees to Idaho.  And, lots more by typing “Idaho” into our search function!